Joachim Gauck is president of Germany.
In his 1796 farewell address, George Washington warned the American people against interweaving the fate of the United States with that of Europe: “Why,” he asked, “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?” Fortunately, things did not come to pass as Washington advocated. The 20th century showed that America wins when it is engages in Europe. The United States has acted wisely, and in its vested interest, when it has connected its fate with Europe’s. This insight is the outcome of a long, albeit painful, learning process — on both sides of the Atlantic. The consequence is our transatlantic partnership. Today, we are in danger of unlearning the lesson.
Let us recall: Twice, the United States saw itself compelled to send soldiers to Europe in major wars. This commitment was not only about saving Europe; it was about America’s security. Nothing less than the fate of the Western project was at stake. Only by way of U.S. intervention did a new beginning become possible in Germany and in Europe after the atrocities of the Nazis. The United States first advocated for democracy in West Germany and then did everything it could to promote it. Twenty-five years ago, the United States became the earliest and most decisive supporter of German reunification. Once again, the United States acted in Europe’s interest and its own. German unification, NATO membership for a united Germany, European integration of former Warsaw Pact states: This is the project of freedom and democracy that the United States has promoted from the outset.
Yet, some politicians and academics claim that America’s long-term engagement in Europe has become obsolete. In my view, this is a dangerous mistake. A Europe without the United States would represent a historic setback. It is only because of the U.S. commitment to European security that the continent has become an area of stability. Let’s not forget: Only a safe Europe is a stable Europe. In today’s unstable world, maintaining stability is more important than ever — and in our mutual interest. Only together can we tackle the immense global challenges we face. With ever more trouble spots emerging on Europe’s southern and eastern periphery, we need close ties, particularly through the North Atlantic alliance.
With the recent arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees, Europe is directly confronted with the impact of turmoil from regions that previously seemed far away. We face a crisis in Syria that requires U.S. leadership to resolve. As we pursue the task of mitigating causes that drive people from their homes in the world’s crisis regions — and thus giving them a brighter future — the reliable and proven cooperation that exists between the United States and Europe is essential.
In the years since unification, Germany has come to assume more responsibility in the international arena, especially in Europe and on its periphery. For historical reasons, my country did not seek out such a position, but it has accepted this challenge and is continuing to define its role. Gradually, it is developing more trust in its own abilities, and, step by step, it has grown confident about sharing more responsibility with others. Currently, Germany’s focus is on refugees, as it was previously on the resolution of the euro-zone debt crisis. Germany is trying to help solve the conflict in Ukraine and is engaged in the Balkans, in the Iran nuclear negotiations and in the fight against the Islamic State, as well as in crisis areas further afield, such as Afghanistan and Mali.
No matter what, our compass remains the same: We are guided by the values of the Enlightenment. There is no better guideline than a firm commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights. As Europeans and Americans, we may squabble about how to interpret these principles, but we agree on their overarching significance. The fundamental nature of our Western values is demonstrated in the refugee crisis. Those who belittle our commitment to these principles either turn a blind eye to the plight of the refugees or they have misunderstood the core of our values: They are universal, and they remain universal — even if some people and some regimes do not accept them. It is precisely for this reason that we must tirelessly defend the claim of universality.
Once again, we can only accomplish this task together: by strengthening our transatlantic bond and by acting jointly and more decisively, and by contributing more substantially. Our efforts should begin with civil society. The strong and manifold connections that make up the fabric of our transatlantic partnership must be reinforced — including financially. At the same time, we must leverage our close trade and business ties to establish a broad framework for our bilateral economic relations, as an expression of our vision for free and fair trade. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership would allow us to more effectively spread our transatlantic model of an open society, while setting new standards for global trade. We should continue to convince the public of the merits of this project. That is why the German government, together with its European partners, is working hard to accommodate concerns by seeking clarifications and improvements in the course of the negotiations.
At the same time, as Europeans we will need to make new efforts to protect ourselves from those who do not accept our people’s freedom and right to self-determination. NATO remains essential for this purpose. For decades, as Europeans we have relied on the North Atlantic alliance, and the United States, as the guarantors of our security. Today, we must ask ourselves yet again what price we are willing to pay for the defense of freedom, democracy and security.
As we strive to strengthen the transatlantic partnership, we must realize something fundamental: Less engagement by the United States in Europe and two inward-looking continents would be bad for Germany and for Europe. In view of the immense global challenges at hand, a weakened Europe is a scenario not to be wished for, not for America or for anybody else.